Those thinking about plagiarizing their admissions essays for Smeal College of Business’s MBA program should plan on getting caught.
Forty-eight plagiarized essays were discovered and rejected during the first and second rounds of the college’s MBA admissions cycle, thanks to MBA Managing Director Carrie Marcinkevage and a leading plagiarism-checking service called Turnitin for Admissions.
Three years ago, Marcinkevage, who was director of the MBA admissions office at the time, was reading through applicants’ essays when she began experiencing déjà vu. In an admissions essay about principal leadership, the same sentences kept popping up over and over again, from one essay to the next.
“It was probably the third [essay] when I said, ‘Wait a minute, it is impossible that people would come up with the exact same ideas,’ ” Marcinkevage said.
Marcinkevage called in her admissions staff, which for the next few days, re-read every single essay, looking for similarities. By the end of the process, the team discovered 30 different applicants had lifted entire sentences or ideas from two main online sources, including a 2009 essay titled, Principled Leaders: A Model for the ‘Reset’ Economy, by Deborah Merrill-Sands, without including any citation or attribution to the author.
“This took hours and hours of time. It was tedious and painful and subject to human error,” Marcinkevage said. “I knew there had to be a better way.”
Her solution was to purchase a software called Turnitin for Admissions, which runs essays through a database of content and flags similarities. The service was new at the time, and Smeal was the first business school in the country to use it, Marcinkevage said.
Now, at Smeal, every MBA admissions essay is run through Turnitin before it is even read, a process that Marcinkevage said takes only about 30 seconds. If an essay is flagged, a staff member reviews it, and if there are concerns raised, then Admissions Director Stacey Dorang Peeler determines whether the essay has been plagiarized.
Marcinkevage said plagiarism is a “westernized educational concept,” and many of the plagiarized essays were produced by applicants who grew up in a culture where borrowing material without attribution might be more accepted.
To combat this, the MBA program clearly outlines on its admissions website what constitutes as plagiarism, Dorang Peeler said. Smeal also informs all of its applicants that their essays will be run through the software.
“But certainly plagiarism is not exclusively a problem that is limited to one area of the world,” Dorang Peeler said.
Another factor that can lead applicants to plagiarize is if they do not come from academia or a field in which plagiarism is “talked about,” Marcinkevage said.
“It gets away from you and you just don’t think about it, if you’re in a world where people are more concerned with being connected than being unique,” she said.
If plagiarism is discovered, an applicant will receive the same rejection letter as everyone else, but every applicant is invited to seek feedback on his or her denied application, Dorang Peeler said.
To ensure that accepted MBA students are educated about the issue, Smeal runs a session about the meaning of academic integrity during orientation, said Doug Thomas, who is the MBA faculty director.
“We say here are examples and we go through it very explicitly,” Thomas said.
According to Businessweek, 10 percent of the MBA applications had plagiarized essays this year, up from 8 percent during the admissions cycle last year. But since the Turnitin software was implemented into the MBA admissions process, classroom plagiarism in the MBA program has been eliminated, Marcinkevage said.
Marcinkevage said she has written letters and held sessions with her peers, urging other business schools to use the Turnitin software and to crack down on plagiarism.
“I don’t think people understood the scope of the problem,” she said. “That’s what happened to us. You don’t know what you don’t know.”